The continuing relevance of Alex Haley’s Roots

More than four decades after Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published and became a sensation, I finally read the book by Alex Haley. It tells the stories of six generations of Haley’s ancestors, starting in the mid-1700s with Kunta Kinte, a 17-year-old African captured into slavery.

Roots spent 46 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and won both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1977. It was adapted that year into an eight-part ABC miniseries that was the most-watched series in television history.

The television series inspired my lifelong interest in genealogy. I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in 1977 and had to pull myself away from the State Historical Society’s genealogy collection to write my master’s paper. I had a much easier time finding my first American ancestors than Haley did his because records exist for whites. It took Haley more than a decade of researching to trace six generations back to Kunta Kinte’s West African origins in Juffure, the Gambia. In doing so, he inspired and empowered descendants of enslaved Africans who thought that any attempt to trace their ancestors would be fruitless.

Reading Roots, I was tempted to skip ahead to Kinte’s kidnapping until I realized why Haley devoted almost 200 pages to Kinte’s early years in Africa. By lingering on the rich culture and customs of the Mandinka people from which Kinte sprang, Haley debunked the notion that Africa is the uncivilized “Dark Continent.” I don’t believe it lessened Haley’s impact that later scholarship found discrepancies in his research. The exact identity of his African ancestor is not as important as Haley’s locating his roots in a particular civilization in which he gained pride. Inaccurate details of his African-American forebears’ lives do not invalidate his portrayal of life in slavery: toil from dawn to dusk, demeaning submission to the “massa,” beatings and torture, and perpetual fear of loved ones being sold away, never to be seen again.

While Haley did not downplay slavery’s horrors, Roots is ultimately hopeful. His ancestors were not mere survivors of oppression. Brave Kunta Kinte, his foot chopped off after four attempts to escape, made sure that daughter Kizzy knew about her proud African lineage and would pass stories and words down to succeeding generations. The special skills of cockfighting expert George and blacksmith Tom elevated their standing on the plantation. Their dreams, ambition, and tenacity were fulfilled in the freed generations, which included the owner of a lumber business, a college professor, and journalist Haley.

Is Roots as important today as it was in the 1970s, when few works of art had examined slavery through the lens of victims? Does its message still inspire when polls find that Americans think that the state of race relations is plunging? A&E and the History Channel thought so in 2017. They aired a four-part update with slicker production values to appeal to modern audiences, especially younger people. Like the earlier series, reviews were good.

Discussion of racial issues often focuses on contemporary circumstances without enough attention to their source. The racism of today’s America originated in slaveholders’ stigmatizing people from Africa as an inferior race. Four centuries after the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia, Black lives are still not valued as much as whites’. We see that not only in the obvious example of police killings of unarmed Blacks but also in disparities in wealth, education, employment, and healthcare, in the impoverished conditions in which many Blacks live, and in the disproportionate number of Blacks in prison.

Interviewed by Mother Jones about the remake of Roots, LeVar Burton, a producer and the star of the original series, said, “America today is directly related to America of the antebellum South and the slave trade. And some of the issues that we still grapple with have their roots in slavery and its attendant legacy of racism.”

Forty years ago Roots had the country talking about slavery. The conversation continues. As the seminal element in US history, slavery will always be a relevant topic.

 

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